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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
Disaster on Karachi's coastline

By Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent, in Clifton, Karachi

For the Pakistani port authorities the splitting in two of the grounded oil tanker and the temporary stoppage of the spillage into the sea means "the worst is over".

But not for the tens of thousands of people who live close to the coast of Karachi.

Boy holding a dead turtle on Karachi beech
The full extent of the damage is yet to be known
The culprit - a Greek-registered MT Tasman Spirit - is still grounded in a tilted position as if it may sink anytime.

The salvage crew is using tug-boats to keep its two parts together as the vessel still has more than 35,000 metric tons of oil, and its spillage in the sea may multiply the impact of the environmental problems.

Many people in the affected residential district of Clifton say the port and shipping authorities are equally to be blamed for this disaster.

"If my children and I are inhaling toxic fumes it is because the authorities kept on hiding the correct situation from the people", says Saleem Ahmed, a resident of Clifton's Seaview apartments.

He said he used to love his morning walks along the beach, and is really upset to see the sand being covered with a thick layer of oil.

Mr Saleem is seriously thinking of moving to what he calls a "safer place".

He certainly won't be the first person to do so, as dozens of families have already shifted from the area, at least temporarily.

Toxic fumes

But one doesn't have to be a resident of the city's seaside apartments or an environmentalist to notice some of the disastrous effects of the oil spillage.

Just a couple of steps on what was once a sandy beach is enough to experience the magnitude of the problem.

Camel rides
In cleaner times, the beach was a popular gathering point
The shoes are immediately covered with a sticky coat of black oil, making it impossible to move any further.

And only few minutes on the beach mean a certain headache, followed by nausea, and possible vomiting.

An over enthusiastic television crew had even a more gruelling experience.

While filming in the area the reporter and cameraman soon started to throw up.

And within no time their driver, Dilawar Khan, fell unconscious and had to be rush to a nearby hospital, where he is now stable.

Lethal threats

This is the situation on a beach which in the last couple of years had become the favourite spot for the early morning walking and jogging, and for revellers from all over the city.

If my children and I are inhaling toxic fumes it is because the authorities kept on hiding the correct situation from the people
Saleem Ahmed
The government had spent millions on its development, which has all gone to waste.

Since oil started to the hit the beach, it has remained closed to the public, and paramilitary troops with protective masks are seen stopping people from going near the water.

For the environmentalists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or IUCN and other known groups, a more serious issue is the protection of marine life.

They say although some dead fish have been washed ashore, it is still not clear how many have been affected.

"We are more worried about mangrove forests, which are coming under a direct threat," says IUCN's Tahir Quereshi.

Official disregard

Mr Quereshi says out of nearly 64,000 hectares of eastern coast area, nearly 60% have well-developed mangroves.

Man collecting oil from Karachi beech
Little do they know oil collected like this is virtually useless
Though he admits that so far only a small portion has been affected, Mr Quereshi's fear is that a slight change in the wind direction may push the floating oil towards the main mangrove forests.

"If this happens, it will be a disaster of a very high magnitude", he told the BBC.

Such accidents are not uncommon in the world, but many people in Karachi say what is disturbing is the total disregard by the authorities for the environment.

Officials vehemently reject this charge. Brigadier Iftikhar Arsahd of the Karachi Port Trust says even though it is not their direct responsibility, their teams have been assisting in the clean-up operations including the aerial spray to disperse the oil.

Futile pursuit

There are some people in the city for whom the oil spillage is not bad news.

Some of those living close to an undeveloped beach in Shirin Jinnah Colony consider it a God-sent opportunity.

Almost every day many of them collect incoming oil - or whatever is left of it - in buckets.

Little do they know that this mixture of sea water and oil is of virtually no use to them.

Karachi oil tanker breaks up
14 Aug 03  |  South Asia
Oil 'emergency' off Karachi coast
13 Aug 03  |  South Asia
G8 urges tighter tanker controls
27 Apr 03  |  Science/Nature
Comparing the worst oil spills
19 Nov 02  |  Europe

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